‘I don’t want to be made obsolete by a computer’: Gideon Haigh
Acclaimed Australian writer Gideon Haigh on cricket, tracking unusual stories, and why he enjoys being a journalist
Gideon Haigh is a writer’s writer. He is primarily a cricket journalist but spends a lot of time putting together books (he has written over 20) in clean, cutting prose on subjects as eclectic as the cult of the CEO and illegal abortion in Australia. The 54-year-old’s range of artistic interests are well represented by a tab on his website called “Things I Like": Here Ramachandra Guha and San Francisco’s Monadnock Building share space with the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig and the rock band Sonic Youth. Lounge caught up with the London-born Australian during his visit to India earlier this year. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Particularly with the kind of books you write, do you sometimes feel that you have put in all that work and research but not enough people are reading it?
The curious thing is that for most of my career, there has been no way of measuring how many people are reading my work. I do get book sales numbers, of course, but I don’t know how many people are reading me in the newspaper. It is only recently that we have acquired the analytic tools to work out what and how people are reading. The truth is, I am not interested in any of that. Because I am writing for myself and a few friends. Also, I do it because of the idea that it might be something that I haven’t done before and at the end of the process, it might make me a better journalist and even a better human being.
Is there something you have worked on recently that made you feel like a better person by the time you got to the end?
I have done a piece of long-form which I have just turned into a short book about a woman who has suffered incestuous abuse, called This Is How I Will Strangle You. By no means is this a paying proposition. In fact, very few people will ever read it. But it has been a hugely satisfying thing to be involved in. The journey I’ve undertaken with this woman since July 2018 has been transforming for me and her. For her, it is astonishing that her suffering has been recognized and given a voice. That is tremendously validating for me.
With the cricket reporting and writing, for instance, do you wonder how you are going to say something in a new way?
All the time. If you are not wondering that, you should give up. Look, cricket has been ceaselessly described by lots of people, better minds than mine. So sometimes you are scratching around. In some senses, I think we are too geared towards reporting what everyone has already seen. The first draft of history has been written by the electronic people and the print media comes afterwards and tries to find a way to navigate the context that has already been created.
Also, I sort of see those two aspects of my career—knowing a lot about a little (cricket) and knowing a little about a lot—working together because I don’t spend all my time writing cricket. That definitely helps, it would be soul-destroying to do only cricket and feign enthusiasm all the time.
This knack for finding the story. How do you develop it?
You have to be open, you need to have your eyes (open) and ears pricked all the time. The ideas for all my books have been serendipitous discoveries. One book has often led to the other. One of the first books I wrote was The Cricket War, which is about Kerry Packer’s World Series tournament in Australia. I finished that book and I thought, “Well, what I don’t know about is the pre-history of the World Series." I now understood the forces that the World Series had unleashed were the result of an accumulation of issues about professionalism and commercialization that cricket had not confronted. So I needed to write about the 1950s-60s to see how those issues came about.
In the course of writing that book (The Summer Game), I wrote a section about the Australian spinner Jack Iverson. I was curious about Iverson because he had gone to the same school as I but there was no monument to Iverson in my school. Twenty-five years after Iverson had committed suicide, in 1998, his family house was put on sale. And I read the advertisement in the real estate section of The Age. It was the same house where he had killed himself. Often, I think these things are like stones in your shoe. The only way to get rid of them is to actually do something about it. So that is how I came to write Mystery Spinner.
What are you working on currently?
The book that I am doing at the moment is about a dissenting judgement in a 1939 Australian high court case. It was the first case that went to the high court for trauma compensation. Now, we are familiar with the idea that trauma is compensable but that wasn’t the case in 1939. I came upon this story last year when I was at a conference of judges whom I was helping write better plain English judgements, which is something I have been doing for 10-12 years. I went and read this dissent—it was both a brilliant piece of law and a wonderful piece of literature by an extremely original intellect. In Australia, we often think of our heroes as being successful, brave, rich, scientifically innovative. We don’t think of ourselves as being clever and compassionate, as the person who wrote this judgement obviously was.
What is your sense of the business of journalism today?
I am not really interested in a relationship where people commission pieces from me. I am not sure editors have the ideas that really excite me. I think editors these days want acceptable versions or pastiches of things that have already been done. It is a very defensive mentality. Certainly, the financial model of journalism is broken but the intellectual model is a more interesting question.
What do you think of the sameness of journalism? In this environment, it’s hard to see how one can do things differently. It is couched in the language of objectivity and balance, but everyone sounds like everyone else.
That kind of journalism will very easily be replaced by Artificial Intelligence. There is already software around that can write perfectly acceptable news English. I don’t want to be made obsolete by a computer. Actually, I think some of the bland stuff has a lot to do with journalists’ desire to be taken seriously. We journalists are quite vain, and like to think of ourselves as occupied in a profession that is on the same level as law and medicine. We are not and we shouldn’t aspire to that. We should take advantage of the freedom that journalism gives. A journalist should always be the kind of vagabond who is prepared to sleep under a hedge.
Do you have no interest in writing about yourself? A Geoff Dyer-style book with your dispatches from cricket grounds around the world? I say that only because Dyer is the other non-fiction writer I can think of with interests and book subjects as eclectic as yours.
I have got no interest in myself. I think Geoff Dyer is wonderful. I look at that kind of writing and admire it but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Dispatches from cricket grounds sounds like a bit of a wank, actually. Because ultimately that experience is pretty banal. Cricket touring has become very regimented. There is a kind of polished conformity in all of it, so it’s become harder to find stories.
Vikram Shah is a Delhi-based editor and writer.
FIRST PUBLISHED01.05.2020 | 10:54 AM IST